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Expert Reviews 1 of 6
By Bill Jackson
March 23, 2009
The Dodge Grand Caravan largely hits the mark as a flexible vehicle aimed at families, but its reliability has been suspect and there are a few small issues with some of the unique features that make these minivans so flexible.
Cars.com's Mike Hanley has already evaluated the completely redesigned 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan, and his comprehensive review remains useful today, so I'll focus on aspects unique to Dodge minivans, plus a few new features added for 2009. Some of these features work well and some, I found, did not. Sit or Stow For starters, there are Dodge's second-row seats. Standard Stow 'n Go bucket seats fold into the floor, leaving you with a flat load floor. If you're the type who goes driving off into the country shopping for antiques, this would probably be the best setup. Why? If you find that huge chest of drawers, it's simply a matter of folding the second-row seats and you're ready to go. To date, the only other minivan with a fold-flat second row is the Nissan Quest. It's also easy to use, but it doesn't produce a perfectly flat surface.
A two-person bench seat for the second row is a $225 option on the SE trim level. The SXT trim offers a choice between Stow 'n Go and what Dodge calls Swivel 'n Go seats. These let you spin the second-row seats around to face the rear of the van. (The bench is not available in the SXT.)
Swivel 'n Go has its charms, too. With it, you can turn the second-row seats back to face the third row (or just look out the back of the van), and Dodge gives you a table to put between the seats. If I liked to tailgate, or if I had kids and was always at their soccer games, I'd consider getting this setup.
Swivel 'n Go does have a minor flaw worth considering: A metal ring protrudes from the floor to support the table, and Dodge says it's not removable. That means that, while you can remove the second-row seats as you would in any minivan if you wanted to haul big cargo, you'll have to deal with the ring catching and grabbing the cargo.
Swivel 'n Go also comes with a bin in the floor in front of the second-row seats. Our model came with the table stowed there, and there was still room left over for a gym bag and a laptop, which was nice. The not-so-nice part is that in order to fully open the bin, you have to move the front seat all the way forward. That's not an issue for me, as I usually travel alone, and the bin is essentially a large tub you can access from either side. But if someone's sitting in the passenger seat and you want to get something large out of the bin, your passenger would either have to get out, get scrunched or be really short.
The bin is present in every Grand Caravan in one form or another. If you have Stow N' Go, the bin needs to be empty in order for the seats to be stowed there (obviously). It's the same arrangement for Grand Caravans with the optional bench: The bin is there, but it serves as the place to fold the bench into if you need more room. (The bench is not removable.) Only on Swivel 'n Go models is the bin there for storage of things other than seats. New Suspension for 2009 New for 2009 and well worth considering is an optional sport suspension. Because I'm not the craziest guy on the planet, I didn't track-test the sport setup. Fortunately, I do have a ready supply of barely paved roads on which I could test whether the ride was too harsh. It wasn't too harsh for me. While my fellow Cars.com reviewer Mike Hanley found considerable nose dive when braking hard in the 2008 Grand Caravan equipped with the standard suspension, I did not experience that in a number of sudden stops I made in my sport-suspension-equipped 2009 version.
Overall I liked the sport suspension, but if you ferry kids or prefer a really mushy ride, you'll want to take an extended test drive and make sure the option fits your needs. Where Did I Leave That Shifter? One thing I didn't like one bit was the gearshift placement. It's up high on the dashboard, just to the right of the steering wheel. Mike didn't mind it, but it drove me nuts. Because of the way I had the seat and steering wheel set, I couldn't see it. When parking and reaching to put it in Reverse, my instinct was to reach down rather than up. Yeah, it's the kind of thing you'd get used to if you only drove the Grand Caravan, but if I had a second car and switched between them a lot, I don't think I'd ever get used to the odd placement.
A pleasant surprise was the optional 4.0-liter V-6 engine our test model came with. Again, I'm not comparing this minivan to a hot rod, but it provided really good grunt in stop-and-go city driving. Some cars amble away from stoplights, and this one didn't.
The SXT Grand Caravan comes with a six-speed automatic transmission whether you get the 4.0-liter or the SXT's standard 3.8-liter V-6. SE models have a four-speed transmission and a 3.3-liter V-6 as the only options. The 4.0-liter Grand Caravan SXT is rated at 17/25 mpg city/highway, compared with 17/24 for the SE and 16/23 for the SXT with the 3.8-liter engine. All in all, I'd take the bigger engine and better fuel economy, thanks. Safety The Grand Caravan received a rating of Good, the highest possible, in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal-offset and side crash tests. The 2009 carries over the same standard safety equipment the 2008 had, including curtain airbags for all three rows of seats, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.
Two safety options that are new for 2009 are a blind spot warning system and what Dodge calls Cross Path Detection. The blind spot system uses a light in the side mirror to indicate if there's a car in your blind spot. I didn't find that I needed the one on the passenger side mirror — most times I could actually see the car when the system thought I couldn't — but the one on the driver's side did come in handy a couple of times.
Cross Path Detection, on the other hand, never came into play. It uses sensors to "see" down an aisle of parked cars or other obstacles when you're backing out of a parking space, and it's supposed to let you know, using an audio or visual warning, if a car is approaching. It never activated while I was driving the Grand Caravan.
Note that these features, as well as the sport suspension, are optional only on the most expensive trim level, the SXT, where they're bundled into a $1,425 safety package. So if you're looking to save money, you won't have the option of choosing these options. Grand Caravan in the Market This isn't the type of car I'd buy as Cars.com's resident Weekend Athlete, but I could see having fun with the Swivel n' Go seats on my camping trips or bike-racing adventures. There's a lot of space for carrying groceries and toys and, as I said, driving around town with the low-end grunt of the 4.0-liter is pleasant enough. Thing is, none of the niceties are any good if the van isn't running; the Grand Caravan's reliability has been poor, and Consumer Reports projects it to be much worse than average.
On the other hand, if you have kids and find yourself standing out in the rain at the soccer pitch, you might be willing to take the risk in order to have a nice table and chair out of the elements at which you can sit.